Quitting and Winning

“Quitters never win,” we’re told from the time we’re tots. By the same token, we’re also told that we should avoid “throwing good money after bad.” This seems to be the same sort of contradictory wisdom as “turn the other cheek” vs. “an eye for an eye” and “out of sight, out of mind” vs. “absence makes the heart grow fonder”—not very helpful.

So when it comes to writing, should one plod through a project to completion no matter how miserably it’s going, or should you sometimes accept that you’re better off abandoning a work?

The question came up recently in a Goodreads forum, and while I think it was directed to readers—do you force yourself to finish reading a book even if you’re not enjoying it?—it’s certainly pertinent for writers as well.

I would never have started, let alone completed, my novel Beyond Billicombe if I hadn’t abandoned another book I was writing. At the time my husband and daughter were out of the country for five weeks, giving me entire evenings and weekends to do nothing but write (and walk the dog, heat up frozen fish-and-chips dinners from Tesco, and watch James McAvoy movies on cable). For three weeks I beavered away on a novel, and while some of the writing was pretty good (if I do say so myself), the story as a whole wasn’t gelling. I reached the point where I almost dreaded sitting down to the keyboard (which is where my viewings of James McAvoy movies came in). By now I had only two solid weeks of solitude left, and here I was wasting them on a story that was giving me no satisfaction.

As it happens, during this time I was also reading Lowboy by John Wray during my bus rides to and from work. The story of a schizophrenic teen who escaped from a New York hospital and the frantic search for him, it combines brilliant, lyrical, impressionistic imagery with a very tight plot. At its heart it's the story of a quest, and that basic storyline is what makes the book, despite its sometimes difficult-to-follow marriage of perceptions and reality, such an accessible and gripping read.

And that led me to an epiphany about what was wrong with the story I’d been working on: There was no quest, no goal that the characters were striving for, no clear linearity. Granted, many books succeed without that element, but I knew I wasn’t capable of writing one.

I tried to work a quest into the story, but I couldn’t. And so, realizing what the work was lacking, and admitting that I couldn’t at that time provide it, I relegated the chapters I’d written to a folder on my hard drive.

But while brainstorming for a tidy plotline for that story, my mind had come up with another fictional quest—or rather, it had returned to a vague plot I’d conceived years earlier. That plot had involved a different set of characters and took place in Philadelphia in the early 1980s. But a day after calling it quits on the other novel, I'd transposed the storyline to Devon in the early 2000s, with a new cast of characters, and began work on what became Beyond Billicombe. I wrote most of the first draft in the two weeks before my family returned home.

In this case, I was right to stop throwing good writing after bad. Though that’s not to say I tossed the story and its characters completely. I’m now thinking of revisiting them.

And this spring I revisited another story that I’d abandoned a few years ago. Again my reason for quitting was an inability to create a tight-enough plot for the characters. The protagonist of the story, Steve, is one of the favorite characters I’ve ever developed; he’s one of the two narrators of a book I’d written prior to Beyond Billicombe, and I missed spending time with him. But one morning in April I woke up at 6 a.m. with Steve’s “quest” precisely detailed in my mind. I raced to the park (aka my office for writing fiction) to review the chapters I had previously completed. I salvaged some elements and began integrating them with the new, focused storyline. I’m hoping to have the manuscript ready to submit to agents by the beginning of the year.

Maybe this doesn’t count as an example of quitting, but rather of postponing. Or you could argue that it’s impossible to truly quit a piece of writing; it already exists, even if not in the form you envisioned. And whether it remains on your hard drive or in your imagination, it’s still with you. You may quit the story, but the story hasn’t quit you.

As for whether I ever quit reading books before finishing them, I do, even though I feel as if I failed the author almost every time. But there are so many other books out there worthy of being read, not to mention so many things we’re obliged to do that give us little if any satisfaction, that forging ahead with a book that’s more work than pleasure seems pointless. Life’s too short, and the fact that I can’t think of a contradictory maxim for that piece of wisdom suggests it’s an axiom worth following.

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